DAVOS, Switzerland – Smallholder farmers could be the key to tackling some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Alexandra Brand, the chief sustainability officer for the agribusiness Syngenta, is looking to better integrate those farmers into initiatives to build sustainable food systems and address climate change. She believes smallholder farmers should be rewarded for helping curb greenhouse gas emissions with benefits that could help them access new technology to improve their production.
Syngenta is currently leading several efforts to improve the situation of smallholder farmers and bolster food security, not only by creating incentives for addressing climate change concerns, but also improving access to insurance and improved seed varieties.
Malnutrition Deeply spoke to Brand in Davos about these initiatives.
Malnutrition Deeply: Syngenta’s Good Growth Plan set six commitments to improve the sustainability of agriculture, including making crops more efficient and rescuing farmland. What’s the current status of the initiative?
Alexandra Brand: The Growth Plan looks at a number of different things. Farmers should have a living from what they do, so it looks at productivity.
It looks at soil, because soil is very closely connected to climate change. We are about to publish for the first time data related to how good soil management can actually decrease the carbon footprint of a grower and sequester carbon in the soil.
It also has aspects of buyer adversity, because we need to look at the entire agricultural system, because agriculture impacts nature. We know that. It looks at smallholders, and what smallholders need, the knowledge they need to really manage agriculture and the soil well.
Malnutrition Deeply: Are there specific technologies within the Good Growth Plan that you want to highlight or that you think may be widely usable over the next several years?
Brand: I think the work we have done on conservation agriculture, what it really means, I think that’s very important. We look at, “How are the weather events developing? How is the climate changing? What are the soil conditions, and what is the water environment?” Then we talk with growers to say, “Well, in this environment, what kind of practice, how much do you till, how much do you disturb the soil, how do you irrigate, how do you fertilize, which seeds do you use?” It’s really the entire system.
What we are doing as a seeds company, we are then looking at: Are our seeds actually suitable, or do we need to do seeds that are more drought tolerant? Or do we need to do seeds that actually can use less fertilizers? Sometimes, these are difficult trade-off decisions. Sometimes you can have seeds where you can see a big productivity component, but you need more water. Do we want that or not? These are difficult discussions.
Malnutrition Deeply: What are examples, opportunities and challenges of how the private sector and businesses can work closely with other key stakeholder groups, especially in knowledge sharing?
Brand: So our experience, what has worked well, is that we share openly our signs, which we have been doing. This is one of the principles of this Good Growth Plan. So everything what we do with the farms on which we work – to look at how the systems work, what water they consume, how much can we reduce pesticides – all this data is shared on our open data platform, which is available for science.
This is how it evolved that we are now looking at the carbon footprint when we do soil conversion, because these things link together. It’s a fantastic initiative, actually from private companies, to agree on how we really calculate that. Because that needs to be credible, and these kinds of metrics needs to be accepted by science, and they need to be measurable by the people who do the work.
So I think we have moved in that direction. Now when you ask me, “Is that enough?” No, it’s not enough, and this is also why we are here at Davos to look for other partners, other models, which have been successful, that we continue to challenge and change ourselves.
Malnutrition Deeply: Tell us more about the role of data in both the creation of things, but also in measuring accountability. How have you seen that evolve in the past, and how do you hope for it to evolve over the next several years?
Brand: First of all, it was internally important to measure what we do, because we wanted to commit. So, for example, we said, “We want to train 20 million smallholders.” We wanted to count that. We are at 17 million now, which is good.
Then we said, “Well, what actually is training, what does it mean? How do we measure the quality of it? How do we measure, Does it have really an impact?” These are things where I think we need to evolve further on.
With this kind of transparency and knowledge creation, we are much better to make things targeted, also the costs of everything to really make that as specific and targeted, and to really have an impact. For me, especially on smallholders, this is something I want to continue to see developed, because there are so many training needs and so many organizations who want to do something good, but it needs to stick.
Malnutrition Deeply: How do you engage with smallholder farmers?
Brand: [In Africa], I think our most successful engagement is so far the so-called Farm-To-Market Alliance, which is a World Food Program initiative, we’re building together with a bank, which knows banking in agriculture, a fertilizer company and others. We’re trying to build really everything around a smallholder that a smallholder can live from. It’s not about only out of hunger, or subsistence farming, but really that it’s a business, that the children are attracted also to stay on the land. So, we’re trying to put this together.
Now you can say this is small, 160,000 smallholders only, but from our perspective it has been our most successful approach, to lift up smallholders out of subsistence into something that they really can say, “I want to stay on this land, and I want to continue farming.”
Malnutrition Deeply: What are the best practices that you felt for including business in a productive way, both in the conversation and in the solutions to hunger? Are there specific things that you’ve seen work, that you’re trying to replicate further, in terms of best practices?
Brand: We also have a charity arm of Syngenta. The foundation is doing really good work in respect to joint research on seeds on neglected crops, where we, as a commercial company, would say, it’s no business case for us. But, certainly, we have knowledge to look at varieties. The foundation is taking this knowledge, together with scientific partners, to develop better seeds for neglected crops, and that’s working actually very well.
Another example from the foundation is a program on insurance programs, where we are trying to bring capital together to better manage farmers’ risks, and here our Syngenta Foundation goes really on the farm, together with local partners, and educates. Kind of “agri-entrepreneurs,” we call these people, because they can really make a living from that advice locally to farming communities, and with that you’re certainly selling an insurance, but we think it’s of benefit to the farmers, and it’s a noncommercial activity.
Malnutrition Deeply: What is your biggest idea for 2018 to help us get to a world of zero hunger in 2030, 2040 and beyond?
Brand: I do believe that we need to fight climate change, and this is very much linked to hunger, maybe today’s hunger, but definitely future hunger. So, I want to see a global mechanism for carbon, carbon reduction, emission reduction. And I want to see agriculture as part of that, because, yes, agriculture is about 20 percent emitting greenhouse gas. But the potential of soils and less land use is huge.
So, I want farmers, also smallholder farmers, to profit from the contribution they can do to reducing the impact. This will be a wonderful income stream for farmers, and I think they deserve that when they do these kind of ecosystem services.
The answers have been edited for length and clarity.